California Breast Cancer Research Program Grantee Receives Nobel Prize


Katherine McKenzie

October 9, 2009—Oakland, CA—The California Breast Cancer Research Program (CBCRP) congratulates our grantee, Elizabeth Blackburn, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and CBCRP funded investigator. Dr. Blackburn shares the award with Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University and Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School for discovering how telomeres and telomerase prevent cells from dying.

The team found that telomeres, which are specialized DNA “caps” on the ends of chromosomes, protect chromosomes during cell division. They then discovered the enzyme telomerase, which maintains the integrity of the telomere and allows cells to continue to divide indefinitely. Most normal cells have little telomerase, but many breast cancers have high levels.

In 1996, Dr. Blackburn took an unusual step in the research process – she wanted to start exploring how her research findings could be used to combat human disease long before more basic research questions were answered.  This was a risk for her, and for the California Breast Cancer Research Program, as there was little indication at that time that telomeres could be targeted to treat cancer.

The CBCRP funded Dr. Blackburn to explore ways to treat breast cancer cells by using their high telomerase content against them. She fed the cells a mutant “toxic” RNA which telomerase used to rebuild the telomeres. The tumors with active telomerase started building defective telomeres, while the normal cells, which do not have the active telomerase, ignored the toxic RNA and divided normally. With subsequent funding, Dr. Blackburn has refined the “toxic” RNA and been able to demonstrate increased inhibition of tumor growth.  Because of the chance that Dr. Blackburn and the CBCRP took, there is a new treatment for breast cancer emerging.

“The properties of telomerase in cancer cells were just beginning to be understood when we funded this in 1996, so looking for practical applications for it was on the cutting edge.” said CBCRP’s director, Dr. Marion Kavanaugh-Lynch. “This project is a perfect example of why we are committed to funding risky, but potentially high impact ideas.”

The full description of this project is available on the CBCRP’s website,

Dr. Blackburn will present the entirety of her work on December, 7 2009 at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

About the California Breast Cancer Research Program
Created by the State Legislature in 1993, the California Breast Cancer Research Program (CBCRP) is the largest state-funded breast cancer research program in the nation and is administered by the University of California, Office of the President. To date, the CBCRP has awarded 860 grants to 98 scientific institutions and community entities, totaling over $205 million for research in California to prevent, treat, and cure breast cancer. Awards include traditional investigator-initiated projects, community-based collaborative research projects, and program-directed special research initiatives. Grants from the CBCRP fill gaps not traditionally funded by other research programs to jump-start new areas of investigation that push the boundaries of research and foster new collaborations. The CBCRP is funded through the voluntary tax check-off program on personal income tax form 540, a portion of the state tobacco tax, and individual contributions. For more information, call 888 313-2277, or visit